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Beat the Clock: Planning a Big Journalism Project While Doing All Your Other Work

Beat the Clock: Planning a Big Journalism Project While Doing All Your Other Work

Picture of William Heisel

Now more than ever, reporters have the same complaint: how can they work on big, important stories that are going to have an impact in their communities, when they are constantly running out to cover plane crashes, protests, and planning board meetings? All reporters, even most investigative reporters, have a beat that requires them to pay attention to events as they develop. After a few years writing about the local health care system or education, you may have so many stories that you have been following that it can be hard to find the time to break away.

I was asked by the USC Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships to give a webinar to a group of journalists last week about how to plan and execute an investigation while continuing to do everything else. Our discussion generated so many good tips that I wanted to share them with you. I start with how to pick a manageable project and will continue with tips on how to balance your time, make your reporting efficient and write the final product quickly.

Don’t look for unicorns when there are plenty of horses. Reporters sometimes think they need to have a completely original idea in order to launch an investigation. There are stories everywhere hiding in plain sight. Christina Jewett of California Watch recommends looking at agency reports and annual reports with an eye toward hints for larger stories. When these stories make reference to documents or data, ask for the documents and data. Jewett did this to great effect for the story "State doing little to track hospitals' severe earthquake safety risks."

"I saw a reference to hospital 'collapse risk scores' in a PowerPoint presentation delivered at an informational legislative hearing on hospital earthquake safety," Jewett told me. "I was surprised that such a thing existed, and wondered why it didn't play a more prominent role in discussions of earthquake risk planning, so I asked OSHPD for the risk scores."

Then she crunched the numbers and put them on a map.

Rebecca Plevin from Vida en el Valle was sitting in a meeting of county health officials in June and could have been checking her email or working on another story – I actually recommend that as another time management tool. Instead, she paid close attention and took detailed notes about a presentation showing taxpayer costs rising because of hospitalizations for valley fever. She asked the state of California for data. Then asked again. When she finally got it, she had the heart of a tremendous story: Valley fever costs mount for patients and taxpayers.

One of the main purposes of my blog is to encourage respectful copying. If someone at a paper in Alabama or Wyoming does a great story, you may be able to find a story just as interesting involving your local health system. I’ve been thrilled to see all the investigations about state medical boards in recent years and have even helped a few reporters get theirs off the ground. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Kansas City Star, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune are just a few of the papers that have done great projects about physician discipline.

Every local situation has its own complexities that are worth exploring.

Related Posts:

10 Health Journalism Tips from Veteran Health Writer Pat Anstett

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Good Reads: 5 Long-Form Health Stories to Inspire and Illuminate

Complete Health Reporting: News Releases Should Spark, Not Replace Good Questions 

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